Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson enjoy themselves mightily in the unpolished black tragicomedy In Bruges. And why shouldn’t they? They play Irish hitmen on the lam in Belgium — and the very notion of such a placid tourist spot as a lam destination is engineered for maximum amusement, at least among European audiences who enjoy a good, dumb Belgian joke. Farrell is Ray, agitated with guilt about the innocent bystander he killed in the course of his first big rubout assignment in London — but not so morose that he doesn’t have an eye for ladies of any nationality, nor so unmoved by beauty that he doesn’t declare, ”Bruges is a s—hole.” (Heads up, Mr. Moviefone, the place is pronounced Broozh.) Gleeson is Ken, the more seasoned goon, instructed by the pair’s crime boss to keep a lid on Ray. As it happens, Ken is a tourist-aesthete with an eye for the historic Flemish city’s handsome canals and medieval architecture.
The roles are big, broad, violent, and strategically funny — they’d be visible from a theater balcony, and not only when, at a pub, Ray mocks the less-than-tub-size volume of Ken’s drink order as a ”gay beer.” Director Martin McDonagh has clearly told his prize players to Go Big, and the pair didn’t have to be told twice. Ray meets a pretty French girl (up-and-comer Clémence Poésy) who’s a bit of a drug dealer but nice all the same, and Farrell cries, glowers, flirts, and milks his bad-boy charms for a lark. Ken admires religious relics with unironic enthusiasm before being handed a particularly nasty, deadly assignment, and Gleeson savors yet another chance to make the most of the contradictions between his menacing mass and his gentle eyes. Neither star is sloppy, but both are loose and mellow — a couple of pros who know they’re the whole show.
In Bruges is McDonagh’s debut as a feature-length director. The filmmaker, who also wrote the original script, is best known as a playwright, lauded on Broadway and abroad for productions including The Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He’s a specialist in constructing satisfying, live-wire dramas of violence that crash up against despair, in upending his characters’ miseries with moments of twisted humor, and in sustaining a writing voice that roars with a particularly Irish robustness of obscenity.
Still, McDonagh hasn’t yet solved the construction of a feature film. The writer in him lets his characters declaim and banter too indulgently, and the theater guy in him positions his thespians as if envisioning stage-set changes, his eye not quite attuned to the cinematic requirements of movement through real space. (The film was shot on location.) And so In Bruges lurches from pretty but uninformative tour-of-the-town footage to static conversations between Ray and Ken, dully framed. McDonagh has said he’s inspired by Scorsese and Tarantino; he takes from his heroes a penchant for idiosyncratic cutaway shots, but not enough of the distinctive pacing skills to give those cutaways meaning.
The story is also a precariously busy affair, saddled with a film-within-a-film subplot: Cooling their heels in that pretty-slash-boring fairy-tale town, the fellas come across a nighttime shoot, where the sight of a dwarf American actor (Jordan Prentice) throws Ray into paroxysms of gawping, un-PC excitement. (As a comedy gift to European Union recipients, Ray also heartily insults three fat, braying American tourists planning to climb the narrow stairs of Bruges’ famed 13th-century bell tower.) Later, that same dwarf (who bristles with very McDonagh-esque ire) will become baroquely embroiled in Ray’s life; first he has to court an audience laugh by hiring a long, slinky Dutch hooker. Dutch, ha, another inside joke for the Europeans!
But just as this Odd Feckin’ Couple runs out of Continental diversions, In Bruges takes a turn for the (even) more extreme with the appearance of the boys’ London boss, Harry. Or, to be exact, ‘Arry. As played by Ralph Fiennes, the icy psychopathic SOB has one foot in the world of a Monty Python parody crime-world baddie and the other in the realm of Voldemort. Unsatisfied with the way some of his instructions have (or haven’t) been carried out, Harry arrives in his flash business suit — with his bony death-head stare — to push In Bruges to its amped-up last act. Blood spurts, hopes are thwarted, tragedy and pathos convene on the Belgian cobblestones, along with the dwarf. In McDonagh’s theatrical neighborhood, it’s business as usual. C+